Follow the Narrow Brick Road – and hope for the best

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Listen to Brenda tell the story

A man was recently fined in Rome for driving a Maserati down the famous Spanish steps.

There’s a lot to unpack there, as everyone is saying these days.

First of all, why on earth would anyone drive a Maserati in Rome? Some Maseratis have 580 horsepower and are designed, if we’re being honest, for racetracks. If no racetrack is available, the next best thing would be a German Autobahn, ideally in a sparsely populated rural area like Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – or Meck-Pomm – that has few cars on the road. Unfortunately, that’s 1,600 km from Rome.

Perhaps the driver of that Maserati, a Saudi national, was not up to speed in European geography and was thus trying to take a shortcut to Meck-Pomm by bumping down the Spanish steps? He also broke a few of them on his way down. Since he was filmed doing this, he was easily located. Asked why he would attempt such a feat, he said he made a wrong turn. Luckily some passersby were able to direct him back to the road.

For that matter, only the boldest and bravest would dare drive in Roman traffic at all. It is a seething mass of little cars operating by their own rules – and driven by Italians, also operating by their own rules – with construction sites sprinkled in at regular intervals just to keep you on your toes. Your average American driver (at least this one) would take one look at the eddies and flows of cars, throw up their hands and take a taxi.

I had my own Maserati-esque experience in Spain a couple of years ago. I had reserved a compact car, which I figured would be manageable, at the Madrid airport to go pick up my daughter, who had just finished a Spanish course in nearby Ávila. But we all know what happens when we reserve a car: we get any kind of car except the one we asked for. In my case, the rental agency roll of the dice that I’m sure takes place just underneath the counter turned my compact car into a large, BMW diesel-powered sedan. It was this BMW barge that we drove to Córdoba, a city whose streets date from Roman times and are thus designed for donkeys, not diesels. And narrow agile donkeys at that.

In my defense, I already knew that these narrow streets would spell my demise. Careful research had revealed the location of a public parking garage right at the edge of the old city, where our hotel was. All I had to do was park there. But first I had to find it, and in the process I ended up driving through the old city.

The scenario unfolded precisely as it had in my worst nightmares. The streets twisted and turned and got progressively narrower and dead-ended here and there. I was repeatedly forced to turn around this Titanic of a vehicle in an alleyway designed for apple carts. Getting increasingly desperate, I eventually wound up on a street so narrow that as the picturesque, whitewashed walls closed in on me I had no recourse except to scream.

Amazingly, it didn’t help.

In between waves of desperation as I jockeyed between massive stone walls and squeezed beneath Roman arches, I noticed that there were hardly any cars on the road. Chatting afterwards with the hotel proprietor, I discovered why: it was forbidden to drive in the old city. He informed me that webcams had most certainly filmed our every move and we were bound to get a ticket.

I was too exhausted to panic a lot, but I managed to panic at least a little. “Did they hear my scream?” I wondered. Seeing my anxious look and thinking I was worried about the ticket, he assured me that tourists are exempt. I just had to give him our license plate number so he could inform the police.

I should have taken my cue from an earlier Spain vacation. At that time, my husband did all the driving – and even relished the challenge of maneuvering down narrow alleys. As for me, even as a passenger I was so terrified I resorted to just closing my eyes and resigning myself to fate. If we crash, I figured, I’ll notice.

Americans driving on European roads are a joke waiting to be made, a point that has not been lost on Hollywood. The cliché-laden film National Lampoon’s European Vacation from 1985 has a scene where the protagonist, played by Chevy Chase, is driving his family through a small German town. The road gets narrower and narrower until finally, the car winds up jammed in the massive stone arches of an old city gate.

I panicked together with Cameron Diaz in the movie Holiday, where she has swapped her California mansion for a quaint English cottage in the countryside. Decked out in high heels, she is no match for the deep snow by the roadside and her driving skills are not suited to the road, either. I felt somewhat supercilious when she reacts to an approaching truck by simply closing her eyes and shouting “Please, don’t hit me!” I may have screamed in that alleyway in Córdoba, but I most definitely did not close my eyes.

My daughter, who was in the car with me in Spain, was peeved with me for losing my cool while driving those cobblestone carriageways. Moms aren’t supposed to fly off the handle like that; they’re supposed to maintain their calm in all situations. So it was most gratifying when she got her driver’s license and confessed that perhaps she had been a wee bit harsh on me. A few hours of driving around Munich’s confusing streets had shown her first-hand how harrowing it can be driving in a European city.

The traffic in European cities is in a whole different league compared to American ones. In the U.S., they have multiple warning signs, for example, when your lane is coming to an end, announcing things like: “Merge right in 500 feet.” In Europe, the lane just unceremoniously ends.

In my opinion, they should at least have a sign there saying “End of lane. Deal with it, loser.” If it can’t be helpful, it should at least be funny. Drivers should have something to laugh about on their way to an untimely death. On the other hand, the streets are so erratic that the side of the road would be one continuous sign – which people would then ignore, of course.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why whenever I’m in a stressful traffic situation, I immediately start cursing – in German. It was a huge relief when my daughters reached the age when I could comfortably swear in their presence without fearing that I was corrupting them for life. And when they did reach that age, boy did I let loose, especially in the car. Only after some time did I notice the snickering in the back seat.

“There goes Mom again – cursing at all the other drivers in German!”

All at once, my behavior became clear to me. This was the only time I regularly spoke German with my kids. Always while stressed in traffic, always in Germany – and always cursing.

Brenda Arnold

Photo by Felix Haumann

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